JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A federal judge on Friday blocked a new Missouri law that requires insurers to exclude birth control coverage for moral objectors, ruling that it conflicts with an insurance mandate under President Barack Obama's health care law.
The temporary restraining order halts the Missouri law just three months after the Republican-led Legislature enacted it by overriding Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto.
The state law requires insurers to issue policies without contraception coverage if it runs contrary to the religious or moral beliefs of an individual or employer. The law appeared to be the first in the nation to directly rebut an Obama administration policy that requires insurers to cover birth control at no additional cost to women.
U.S. District Judge Audry Fleissig wrote in her order that there "appears to be an irreconcilable conflict" between the state and federal laws that puts insurance companies in an awkward position. If they were to comply with Missouri's law, insurers could be subject to federal penalties for not abiding by the contraception mandate. Yet insurers also could face financial penalties from the state insurance department for failing to follow the Missouri law.
"Insurers are placed in an untenable position as they cannot comply with both statues at the same time," Fleissig wrote, noting that the U.S. Constitution gives preference to federal laws over state laws.
State Sen. John Lamping, a Republican from suburban St. Louis who sponsored the law, said he was neither surprised nor discouraged by the court ruling.
"That's the logical thing that I thought would ultimately occur post-election," when Obama defeated Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, he said. "Clearly, this is an issue at the federal level that remains unresolved."
Lamping noted that federal courts have issued conflicting rulings on challenges to the Obama administration directive that contraception coverage be included as part of the basic preventative services required by the 2010 health care law. If the federal requirement ultimately is struck down by a higher court – or Congress someday changes the contraception mandate – then the Missouri law likely would be upheld, he said.
The challenge to Missouri's law was brought by the Missouri Insurance Coalition, which represents the insurance industry. The court ruling said the state insurance department already had issued a cease and desist order against at least one of the insurers in the coalition, alleging it was "engaging in fraud" by violating Missouri's contraception-exemption law.
Friday's restraining order says the state insurance department may approve policies with a contraception exemption but cannot reject insurance policies because they lack an exemption for moral and religious objectors. The judge said a hearing for a preliminary injunction would be set later.
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Eric Fehrnstrom, senior campaign adviser for Mitt Romney, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/06/03/494238/fehrnstrom-shiny-objects-women/" target="_hplink">said on Sunday</a> that issues pertaining to women's reproductive rights, such as abortion and birth control, were "shiny objects" meant to distract voters from the real issues. "Mitt Romney is pro-life," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "He'll govern as a pro-life president, but you're going to see the Democrats use all sorts of shiny objects to distract people's attention from the Obama performance on the economy. This is not a social issue election."
The Senate will vote Thursday on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would expand and strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and make it illegal for employers to punish women for bringing up pay disparity issues. Dana Perino, a Fox News contributor and former press secretary for President George W. Bush, <a href="http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/04/30/perino-equal-pay-issue-is-a-distraction-for-just-48-hours/" target="_hplink">called the equal pay issue</a> "a distraction" from the country's real financial problems last week. "Well, it's just yet another distraction of dealing with the major financial issues that the country should be dealing with," Perino said. "This is not a job creator."
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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose home state's legislature recently defunded Planned Parenthood and voted to pass a bill that would allow employers to deny women birth control coverage, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/26/john-mccain-war-on-women_n_1455591.html" target="_hplink">delivered a floor speech</a> in which he insisted that the war on women is something imaginary for Democrats to "sputter about." "My friends, this supposed 'War on Women' or the use of similarly outlandish rhetoric by partisan operatives has two purposes, and both are purely political in their purpose and effect: The first is to distract citizens from real issues that really matter and the second is to give talking heads something to sputter about when they appear on cable television," he said.
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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tried to trivialize concerns about the legislative "war on women" by comparing it to a "war on caterpillars." "If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we'd have problems with caterpillars," Priebus <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-05/priebus-says-gender-battle-as-fictonal-as-caterpillar-war.html" target="_hplink">said in an April interview</a> on Bloomberg Television. "It's a fiction."
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Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Steelman (R) took heat from her opponents in May when she contended that Democratic lawmakers' focus on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was "a distraction" from the issues they should be dealing with instead. "I think it's unfortunate that the Democrats have made a political football out of this thing, which I think is what they keep doing to distract from real problems that are facing our nation," she said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio.
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South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) defended the Republican Party in April for going after insurance coverage for contraception by arguing that women don't actually care about contraception. "Women don't care about contraception," she said on ABC's The View. "They care about jobs and the economy and raising their families and all those other things."